'Countess' remembers former glamour
BEIJING — Get ready for a tidal wave of foreign movies made in China — that’s the message from Ismail Merchant, who has just wrapped historical epic “The White Countess” in Shanghai.
“I get the sense the floodgates are really going to open after this production,” Merchant says.
Directed by James Ivory, “The White Countess” is set in the glamorous but dangerous years of the late 1930s, when Shanghai was still Asia’s most fashionable and cosmopolitan city but teetered on the brink of takeover by the Japanese and a subsequent four decades of Communism.
“This is going to open the door for very many productions to come. China, and Shanghai in particular, is a big focus at the moment,” says the producer, who said Shanghai Film Studio was very helpful with the shoot.
Pic stars Ralph Fiennes as a disillusioned, blind former American diplomat who builds a nitery for the young White Russian noblewoman of the title, played by Natasha Richardson. Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave also star.
The production lensed on the historic European-style waterfront promenade, the Bund, at 5 a.m. to avoid traffic. Another key venue was the Peace Hotel, a Chicago-styled, Art Deco palace still largely intact since its heyday in the 1930s.
“When you see the film, you’ll see how the situation today parallels the exciting time of 1937 and 1938. Back then, Shanghai was like Paris, a real destination; it was the place to come when you wanted to find out about China. It’s the same thing now. The hotel lobbies are full of politicians and dealmakers,” Merchant says.
Also appearing are U.S. based Chinese actor Wang Luoyong, Madeleine Potter, in her fourth Merchant-Ivory project and Sanada Hiroyuki, who appeared in “The Last Samurai.”
Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle, who has worked with Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai and who recently shot Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” is back in China again for “White Countess.”
Anglo-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, whose “The Remains of the Day” was also given the Merchant-Ivory treatment, wrote the original screenplay. Co-producer on the project is the Shanghai Film Group Corp., which helped with logistical challenges that face any production in China.
Sony Pictures Classics is U.S. distributor on the project, due to bow in September.